A Dolorous Galactic Head Trip
In space, no one can hear you weep. That’s the takeaway from James Gray’s magnificently dolorous Ad Astra, a galactic head trip with a title that means “to the stars” but more accurately aims for the heart. Whether it hits that target may vary. Women and well-adjusted men will watch the film with solemn respect. Anyone harboring a complicated relationship with their father should brace for impact. Not for nothing did local journalists at the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere call it “le daddy issues nello spazio.”
AD ASTRA ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: James Gray
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland
Running time: 124 min
Poker-faced Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a stoic spaceman whose father Clifford (ever-grimacing Tommy Lee Jones) was the most decorated astronaut in history. “He was the best of us,” says a colleague. Clifford left Earth 29 years earlier to lead the Lima Project, the first manned expedition to the outer limits of the solar system. And in the years since he abandoned his teenage son, Clifford and his crew have been MIA. He’s the ultimate deadbeat dad, which Roy processed with a hardened heart that never goes above 80 BPM and an emotional frigidity that torpedoed his marriage with wife Eve (a wordless Liv Tyler, hired to look pretty). “I never really knew him at all. Or am I him?” Roy says to himself in desperate contemplation. Yes, Roy. Yes, you are.
When Earth falls prey to “The Surge,” destructive rays from Neptune that destabilize the planet and cause 40,000 deaths, Space Com suddenly calls on Roy to investigate. Turns out the rays might be coming from Clifford. And they’re technically an “uncontrolled release of anti-matter,” so a more robust burst of rays basically means the end of all life as we know it. Roy’s covert mission is to travel to a secret underground base on Mars, establish contact with Clifford, and hopefully talk him out of total annihilation. Brad Pitt must save the world.
Gray explicitly cites Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as his inspiration here, and this fantastic voyage quickly feels like a 21st century mash-up of Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Talk about reaching for the stars. While it doesn’t quite match those genre-bending metaphysical classics, Ad Astra is still a stunningly executed, wrenchingly emotional rumination on humanity. It’s sacred and profane, chock-a-block with breathtaking moments and disheartening mundanity. It’s about angels and demons, but most of all, it’s about mortals. This is a big-budget sci-fi adventure that cares far more deeply about inner lives than it does outer space.
Moon pirates! Rabid baboons! Virgin Atlantic passenger rockets! Don’t worry, it’s also fun. Gray punctuates the emotional gloom with more than a few thrilling set pieces. Within the film’s first few minutes, Ray is free-falling from an earth-anchored mega-antenna that pierces the atmosphere. His lunar visit involves a space buggy shoot-out. A distress signal straight out of Alien portends a horrific encounter on a ghost ship. And Ray even comes face-to-face with a genuine Martian: an eerie meeting mainly because she’s also a human being. The whole film is drenched in futuristic devices, state-of-the-art digital tablets, cutting-edge technology. Plus a roll of duct tape.
Solitude is still the key word for Ad Astra, though, a lonely ache that the universe’s vast expanse only amplifies. “May you meet your redeemer face-to-face,” says a crew member about a colleague who dies in space. There’s a hope that the celestial adventure will reveal heavenly bodies. But the reality is a moonbase with a Doubletree hotel and a Nathan’s Hot Dog shack. And a space station where harnessed corpses hang like scarecrows. Gray takes viewers on a 2.7-billion-mile journey into the unknown. What’s at the end? Only what you bring with you.